Giving Thanks to the River

Spence here: (Billy is taking a writing hiatus, while he finishes up another semester of school!) In two weeks time we visited Cottonwood Canyon on the John Day River, (outside of Condon, Oregon) 2 times. Overall I think that makes at least 6 trips to the canyon for 2016. Like the Oregon version of New Mexico, we go there for big open sky and the dry, colorful peace. For the super full moon in November, we took a quick overnight trip, arriving at the campground at dark… time enough to have a soup snack and a home brew and settle down in our nylon cave. It was mild weather and the clouds parted for us to catch an amazing glimpse of the Moon, of which I put so many thoughts and feelings into. We were back in town for work the next day, tired, but on another level, rejuvenated.

The next trip was Thanksgiving time. Although Billy and I were worried about the cold, we found the weather to be rather accommodating, not so windy and fairly dry and sunny. We spent time walking, reflecting, talking about our goals for the coming year, and in general, gulping deep breaths. I laid down in a mostly dry riverbed, (the John Day had been very low at that point from a long dry Autumn), and looked up at the  grey, patchy sky for what felt like weeks. We discovered secret, silent groves of Pinon pine, walls of asteroid-looking rocks and a couple of new insect and plant friends. Thanksgiving is such a strange time, as I am torn between celebrating and being thankful for my family and my luck and the love and health in my life, yet mourning for all that humanity has created and destroyed and waged. I don’t buy the whole pilgrim-indian feast thing anymore, and instead have had to come to terms with this holiday in my own way. Much like Christmas, I get a little depressed at the ways in which our species has acted, but because I have so much to be thankful for, it seems a bit daft to be solemn. At least being outside and close to the ground and surrounded by natural things helps me to piece it together. It can never be one thing… it is always many things. It is always many many conflicting, simultaneous wonderful horrible things. It is how things go. The water flows, and I go with it or against it. Thank you to everyone in my life who has shown kindness–to me–but more importantly to everything and every being I care about. May we be able to drink right out of all the rivers again in this lifetime!

The Many Ruins and Waters of Wy’East


Spence here: The many ruins and waters trip this past weekend was only three days long, but felt like a two week vacation. When we returned to Portland, I was surprised to recall how much we explored, however, it never felt hectic or rushed. We started out with a plan to go east and find a place to catch the lunar eclipse, which could be viewed Saturday morning, early. From there we had a jumping off point, but no set road. Billy had never been to Maupin, Oregon, so all the more reason to go, where the Deschutes River runs cold through pleasing rounded brown hills. High desert smells, plants, coyotes and friendly fishing people abound there and oddly enough, a nice old preserved cow horn, which came to be in our possession. The towering canyon walls were sadly too vertical for our needed view of the moon, come morning, and so we snacked-up and proceeded to a new favorite camp spot of mine on the John Day River called Cottonwood Canyon.

Perpetually chasing waterfalls, we detoured to White River Falls State Park, driving by the Warm Springs Indian Reservation traditional fishing platforms. A large ring-necked pheasant greeted us at the entrance. A steep trail took us down the canyon slopes towards a defunct power station (in operation from approximately 1910 to 1960). It set up a great photo extravaganza, as I took the whole roll of 35 mm film, which I was saving for the rest of the trip. Worth it. The canyon stretched on in the sun and dramatic dark cloud play and we savored the exploration like little kids. Behind every rock and pipe was a new plant, flower, photo op and smooth gray sand ripple. The White River eventually flows into the Deschutes River. We probably could walk the whole way, we pondered.

Losing time, we finally headed out to Cottonwood Campground. It was a bit busy and very windy when we arrived. I argued with the wind setting up the tent, but once staked out, proved to be an excellent palace for napping and gin rummy. We rose at 5:00 a.m., made a small fire and watched the Earth’s shadow move across the moon, with only a few birds and spirits watching. The rest of the campers had decided to stay in bed! While watching stars fade and tracing the hillside contours in my journal, I realized I am still wrapped up in the Western entanglements of hope and fear. What to do but realize and try to breathe.

A little while later we took a chilly stroll towards the John Day’s banks and I fished for a spell. I can’t recall ever being so relaxed in the past month as right by that river in those moments. I only caught snags, lost my favorite lure, and had a knot or two fail me, but the grin stayed on my face and a weathered elk bone accompanied Billy and I back to the Jeep in my jacket hood. Billy and I were engaged around this time last year during a lunar eclipse. Had it been a year already?!

We decided to head back along a rural route, taking Monkland Lane. Billy had spied an old church on the way out and we stopped to snoop. More ruin porn. I guest-i-mated this church was built around 1880. It still had a few recognizable pieces of hardware, which I was tempted to nab. A creepy, boarded-up, dilapidated convent-state hospital-looking building over saw the small town, but there were houses near, so we decided to skip getting close to that.

We had excellent talks in the afternoon, chasing sun patches and sitting around the fire at Bear Creek Campground, in the Mt. Hood National Forest. It was good to prioritize and give volition to the original leanings and plans about coming to Portland. A unique time to be up that high without snow, we took the chance to hike around Trillium Lake, another popular fishing haven. The fish were jumping, a Bald Eagle watched us close and the skunk cabbage was coming to life. Spur of the moment soon after, we drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. I had never been up, and the history and views were imaginative. I can understand why there are so many groups formed in the area who talk about and research the Sasquatch. What a habitat. The snow is up there year-round, but this year, we could tell from exposed shale and dry patches, it is going to be a very hot summer.

You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.

– Annie Dillard

Billy here. The three tribes of the Warms Springs Reservation are the Wasco, the Walla Walla and the Pauite. The Wasco were fishers who lived along the Columbia River and spoke Chinookan.The Chinookan word for the Columbia River is Wimahl. The Walla Walla, known today as the Warm Springs tribe, spoke sahaptin and lived along the tributaries of the Columbia, frequently interacting with the Wasco and moving from summer to winter villages. The sahaptin word for the Columbia is Nch’i-Wàna, which, like the Chinookan name, means essentially big river.The Paiute spoke a form of Shoshonean and lived in the high plains of southeast Oregon. They migrated further for game animals as they were not primarily fishers.

The Columbia River is the jugular vein of the Pacific Northwest. It is the fourth largest river by volume in all of North America, spanning two thousand kilometers from its headwaters in British Columbia . Under tribal care, the historic salmon and steelhead annual numbers were estimated to run up to 16 million fish. The current annual run is less than one million fish. Thirteen salmonids have made the threatened and endangered species lists. Now over 450 dams are in the Columbia River Basin and a nuclear power plant still operates on the river.

Only in the last 200 years has tribal life in the Columbia Basin been completely disrupted by the coming of European settlers. In 1855, white dude Joel Palmer negotiated treaties in order to clear the people from the land for Oregon territories. The tribes relinquished around ten million acres of land with the promise that they would still be able to fish, hunt and harvest the meager lands of the reservation. Because of forced assimilation and ecological degradation by settler agriculture, dams and other practices, their traditional ways of life were no longer as workable as they once were. In 1957, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers finished building the Dalles Dam, inundating and completely destroying the ancient fishing village and inter-tribal trade center at Celilo Falls that had existed for perhaps 15,000 years. I am finding myself very emotional over learning this fact. Maybe because on some level I knew already before reading the Wikipedia article on Celilo Falls that “Celilo was the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent.”

And maybe I knew the story already because it had happened a thousand times to every tribe on the continent over the same decades that saw the dropping of the atomic bomb, the first drilling of oil, and the witch hunts of the “Red Scare” and the “Lavender Scare”. What have we lost? And is the price of modern convenience and security worth the destruction it has caused?